Why do we think we are doing everything right [just] because we do it’: what transforms Chinese and Scottish student-teachers’ taken-for-granted views in study abroad experiences

Research Highlighted

Li, H., & Costa, C. (2020). ‘Why do we think we are doing everything right [just] because we do it’: what transforms Chinese and Scottish student-teachers’ taken-for-granted views in study abroad experiencesCompare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057925.2020.1852915

About the Study

Our study is set against the backdrop of increasing global interconnectedness and cultural diversity in many communities of the world. It is part of a larger qualitative study which explored how teacher education is internationalised in China and Scotland and how internationalisation shapes Chinese and Scottish student-teachers’ development as globally competent teachers. Although there are emerging studies focusing on how study abroad experiences shape student-teachers’ learning, scant attention is paid to student-teachers’ perspectives about how they come to know and understand themselves and others from perspectives and experiences facilitated by study abroad programmes.

This paper aims to provide an in-depth understanding of the extent to which Chinese and Scottish student-teachers engage with difference while studying abroad in different countries or regions and how these experiences transform their understanding of difference. More specifically, the study drew on data collected through a qualitative questionnaire and semi-structured interviews with 14 student-teachers from two universities in China and Scotland. The research participants featured in the study fall into three groups: 1) Chinese student-teachers who studied abroad through university programmes; 2) Scottish student-teachers who studied abroad through university programmes; and 3) Scottish student-teachers who studied abroad through external means. Using Mezirow’s (1978, 1991, 2003, 2012) transformative learning as the theoretical framework for data analysis, two overarching themes emerged related to how student-teachers experienced and made sense of difference.


The research has evidenced that study abroad programmes that provide student-teachers with opportunities to experience difference as cultural outsiders have a transformative potential. Such experiences can trigger strong emotions which are important for setting the stage for student-teachers’ reflection and self-transformation, and thus serve as edge-emotions (Mälkki 2010). However, this requires deep involvement in the ‘new’ environments. Our study shows that limited contact with local cultures can keep student-teachers within comfort zones as happy learners, foreigners, or tourists abroad. To maximise the benefits of study abroad programmes, student-teachers should be provided with opportunities to step outside their comfort zones, ‘enter into the spirit of other cultures’ (Parekh 2000, 227) and thus challenge their taken-for-granted views. We have also found that appropriate learning support – such as preparatory modules, briefings related to cultural awareness before departure and active discussions during and after study abroad programmes – can better prepare student-teachers to imagine themselves in culturally different contexts.

 Additionally, our study suggests that the different forms of reflection that student-teachers experience when abroad can lead to different levels of learning. This finding provides empirical explanations about the distinction between Mezirow’s (1991) three forms of reflection related to transformative learning. Learning predominantly facilitated by content reflection without inquiring into the root causes of difference led many Chinese student-teachers to uncritically assimilate educational ideas and practices from host countries, preventing them from arriving at transformative insights. Further, if student-teachers are not supported to make critical appraisals of the differences they encounter, such encounters can inadvertently reinforce ethnocentric or inappropriate views about themselves and others as shown in some Chinese student-teachers’ experiences. At best, such an approach can trigger some level of process reflection – demonstrating an ability to make changes in their behaviours to accommodate some of the features of the local culture. Nonetheless, ‘change in behavioural repertoire’ through process reflection leaves student-teachers’ assumptions, particularly their challenged views, unquestioned, which cannot allow for ‘epistemological change’ (Taylor 2017, 20).

In contrast, critical reflection on difference moves student-teachers from a transitional stage characterised by challenges in frames of reference and discomforting emotions towards a transformative insight. Students who engaged in  group critique or self-questioning – as facilitated by the Scottish academic support teams – was vital to encourage student-teachers to (re-)examine their taken-for-granted perspectives and formulate more justifiable, open and inclusive views about different cultures and practices. The ‘potentially colonist nature’ of study abroad programmes (Parr 2012, 106) is a common feature in many previous studies exploring the experiences of Western student-teachers sent to developing countries (Buchanan et al. 2017; Santoro and Major 2012), but it was not present in the study abroad programmes promoted by the Scottish university in our study.


Our findings presented in this paper provide important pedagogical implications. To provide a discourse for disrupting student-teachers’ frames of reference, the pedagogy of discomfort is an essential approach for both study abroad programmes and teacher education curricula. This requires teacher educators to develop knowledge and skills to “push” student-teachers out of their comfort zones in a supportive way. Central to such an approach is the design of effective learning content and also contexts that can problematise student-teachers’ pre-assumptions and allow them to perceive ‘otherness’ via an informed and reflective approach. Critical pedagogy is also vital to fostering transformative learning in teacher education as it can encourage student-teachers to critically reflect on multiple perspectives or norms held by people of different cultures. This requires teacher educators to develop an appreciation for difference and be critically aware of their own frames of reference and how they influence their practices in teacher education.

Nonetheless, a successful incorporation of the pedagogy of discomfort and critical pedagogy depends on institutional support and professional training of teacher educators who are the key actors in designing, writing up and implementing study abroad programmes (Morley et al. 2019). Meanwhile, conversations among all stakeholders, including student-teachers, teacher educators, researchers, institutional leaders and policymakers, are essential to ensure that the aims of study abroad programmes are effectively communicated and fully integrated in teacher education to foster critical reflection and transformative learning experiences.

Authors’ Bio

Dr Huaping Li, Shanghai Normal University, China

Dr Huaping Li is a lecturer at Shanghai Normal University in China. Her PhD looked at the internationalisation of teacher education in China and Scotland from a comparative lens. She is keen on research themes related to teacher mobility, international student mobility and teachers’ global competence in an increasingly global and multicultural context. She is currently working on research projects focusing on university students’ participation in study abroad programmes in China, Scotland and South Korea, and international students’ online learning experiences. She can be contacted via: huaping_li@shnu.edu.cn

Dr Cristina Costa, Durham University, UK

Dr Cristina Costa is an academic in the School of Education at Durham University in the UK. She has a strong interest in educational and digital practices and inequalities. She has conducted research on different topics including widening participation, digital literacies and digital inequalities, curriculum innovation and digital scholarship practices. Recent past projects include the ERASMUS+ funded project on Digital Literacy and Inclusion of Learners from Disadvantaged Background, and the SRHE and Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland projects on Estranged Students’ Experiences of Higher Education (with Professor Yvette Taylor).

Currently, she is alongside Dr Huaping Li working on a project funded by the BA/Leverhulme Small Grants entitled ‘From on-campus to online: International students returning to academia in the context of COVID-19’.

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